Stephen Van Rensselaer III's life (1764-1839) spanned a period of two distinct cultures. He was born into the aristocratic tradition that contended that men of wealth were pre-ordained to be the leaders of the people in governmental and cultural development. He also lived a great span of his life after the Revolutionary War, under newly developing republican principles that maintained the position that men could achieve their utmost potential regardless of wealth of family position. He was called the last Patroon because in 1787 the Legislature had abolished the right of primogenture - the exclusive right of inheritance belonging to the eldest son.
When Stephen Van Rensselaer III was five years old his father died and his uncle, Abraham Ten Broeck, was appointed guardian of his interests. Stephen was graduated from Harvard in 1782 at the age of 19 and came home to Albany to marry Margaret Schuyler. She was the third daughter of General Philip Schuyler of Revolutionary War fame and the Schuylers were a wealthy landholding family in their own right. In the meantime, his mother, Catherine Livingston Van Rensselaer, daughter of Philip Livingston, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, had married for her second husband the pastor of the First Reformed Dutch Church, the Reverend Eilardus Westerlo. They resided in the Manor House until Stephen's marriage, at which time they removed to the church parsonage.
Upon reaching his majority, Stephen immediately was plunged into the business affairs of managing his manorial legacy. He was the largest landed proprietor in the state. He wanted to bring more of his extensive acreage in the East and West Manors under cultivation and he believed the best way to do this was to continue to lease the land rather than sell. He had much open land in the Helderberg region of Albany County and he advertised this as available for settlement. Many came, from Connecticut in particular, to take up his offer of leases in fee, at a moderate rent, for farms of approximately 120 acres laid out by his surveyor. In his long life, he never changed this policy of administering his lands. His brother-in-law, Alexander Hamilton, who had marride Elizabeth Schuyler (Margaret Van Rensselaer's sister), was said to be instrumental in advising the Patroon and even drawing up many of the legal procedures that involved the leaseholds.
As a member of the Federal Party, Stephen III won his first seat in the New York State Assembly in 1789 and twice was elected Lieutenant Governor of the State. He was defeated in his bid for the Governorship in 1801 and again in 1813. He served in the War of 1812 as a Major General of the Militia. In 1810, he had been appointed to a State commission to study the possibilities of a route for a western canal. This was one of his major interests throughout his lifetime, and he was later President of the Canal Commission.
In 1821 he was appointed to the commission to revise the State Constitution. Up to this time none but freeholders had been allowed to vote. The landed interests, such as the Van Rensselaers, Schuylers, Livingstons and others had controlled the government almost exclusively. At the Convention, Van Rensselaer was willing to abandon the property qualifications for voters, but he wanted to limit the privilege to those of character and stability in their residence. His theory was not adopted by the delegates and so he refused to put his name to the new constitution. From 1823-1829, he served the city and county of Albany as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Always interested in agriculture, he became president of the Central Board of Agriculture commissioned by the Legislature. The Board was not long in existence, but he used his own funds to sponsor several extensive geological and agricultural surveys of Albany and Rensselaer Counties. Because of his desire for a place of learning that would advance scientific exploration and train teachers in this field, he founded in 1824 the Rensselaer Institute, largely at his own expense. The school developed into the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, N.Y. In 1824, the Albany Institute, a cultural organization, was formed and Stephen Van Rensselaer III served as its first president. 1831, he became the chief financier of the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad and was its first president.
Stephen Van Rensselaer III died at the Manor House in Albany in January 1839. His passing ended an era in the life of the citizens of Albany County, especially as it pertained to the tenants of the land.